The bizarre decision to kill Newsweek.com

By Felix Salmon
November 15, 2010
Mark Coatney has joined at least one Newsweek.com staffer in presenting a very cogent case for saving Newsweek.com on Tumblr.

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Mark Coatney has joined at least one Newsweek.com staffer in presenting a very cogent case for saving Newsweek.com on Tumblr. Their points about SEO, and about the long tail of Newsweek.com’s archives, and about the relationship with MSN, and about the relationship with advertisers in Newsweek magazine, are all well taken.

But if you take a few step backs the decision is, if anything, even more depressing.

For one thing, it demonstrates a clear failure to understand the web. Tina Brown is a creature of print, not of the web; Ryan Tate, for one, has chronicled her difficulties making the transition from the former to the latter. In the world of print, as Coatney says, it’s conceivable that you can take one magazine’s readership and transfer it to another—think the way that Life‘s readers were steered to Time, or Gourmet‘s to Bon Appetit. But you can’t do that online, for reasons which Coatney outlines well and which the new bosses at Newsweek don’t seem to grok at all.

More generally, there’s a clear and obvious move among online media companies towards creating coherent sites for clearly-defined audiences, rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all mush. AOL has lots of sites at lots of different domains, as does Gawker Media and even the New York Times and Washington Post companies. The Newsweek Daily Beast Company is coming into existence owning two valuable and major websites with clearly distinct audiences. There’s almost certainly a strong case not to try to build a third, while Newsweek is still in turnaround mode. But equally it’s idiotic to try to cut those two sites down to just one.

Finally, it’s worth remembering Jack Shafer’s seven stages of press moguldom:

In securing Brown as editor, Harman is now entering Stage 2 of the seven stages through which all vanity press moguls pass after buying a faltering magazine or newspaper: The owner replaces the editor with a journalistic star, redesigns the publication, expands budgets, moves to better quarters, and thinks about turning the publication into a media empire. (Harman completed Stage 1 when he bought Newsweek, announcing that quality, not profits, are the immediate goal.) Stage 3 is always the hiring of big-name writers, which I’m sure Brown is doing at this exact minute. Stage 4 is grumbles from moguls, in this case Harman and IAC’s Barry Diller—owner of the Beast and now Harman’s 50-50 partner in the Newsweek Daily Beast Company. They complain that the magazine is not a charity and order cutbacks. In Stages 5, 6, and 7, the star editor gets sacked, a pushover is hired as replacement, the moguls strip the publication down to its chassis and wheels, and they look for a new sucker to buy the publication.

The point here is that you don’t amputate one of your most highly-regarded limbs in Stage 2 or Stage 3; that kind of thing doesn’t come until Stage 7. But that’s what’s going on here—the only colorable reason to close Newsweek.com is a budgetary one.

The really bizarre thing, of course, is that on a budgetary level Newsweek.com is the cheapest and most efficient part of the entire organization, losing less money and providing much more bang per buck than either TheDailyBeast.com or the print edition of Newsweek. It also has more readers than both of them put together.

The summary execution of Newsweek.com makes sense only as a power-grab by Brown, and a sign that she somehow thought of it as a threat rather than a source of ideas and readers. I understand that her job is to reinvent a failing magazine rather than to make friends with the chronically underfunded staffers at Newsweek.com. But this decision makes no sense at all.

Update: I agree with Rafat Ali, who says he suspects the DailyBeast Newsweek people don’t even know what “shutting down a website” means or entails. Which only increases the likelihood of a disaster like what happened when the NYT — normally quite a web-savvy company — shut down IHT.com and broke all of its permalinks.

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